No good answers
Turnbull looks weak because he is weak
One of my jobs, as a press secretary, was to anticipate the questions my boss was going to be peppered with by journalists. Another was to come up with possible answers. Once you become practised at this, it can be very satisfying as you watch a press conference play out precisely the way you predicted it would. Of course, this can also be a problem – numerous advisers over the years have been caught out silently mouthing the words to answers as politicians deliver an agreed, and overly scripted, answer.
There were always mornings, though, when a sinking feeling stole over you, because you knew what questions were coming down the line, and you knew, too, that there was no good answer available. There was no good answer because the question was a very good one, a query that nailed some fundamental truth. You could come up with a hundred responses, and each would sound as false as the last.
Asked today why he wasn’t leading on marriage, Malcolm Turnbull said, “Strong leaders carry out their promises. Weak leaders break them. I’m a strong leader.”
In the circumstances, it wasn’t a bad answer. It reminds voters that this is an election promise. It seeks to make a virtue of a problem. It implies a contrast with troublemaker-in-chief and renowned promise breaker Tony Abbott.
The problem for Turnbull and his staff is that there is just no good answer to that question. There is an answer, which all Australia knows – that Turnbull doesn’t have the authority to override his party – but he can’t say that out loud.
And so we now have a ludicrously stretched process awaiting us all on same-sex marriage. First, another vote on the plebiscite in the Senate, which everybody knows will fail. Then a move to a postal plebiscite, around which the government has done some fancy footwork to ward off successful legal challenges. Finally, should either of these happen, and deliver a “yes” vote, there will be a free vote in the parliament, which will almost certainly deliver marriage equality.
There is some sense today that the rebel Liberal MPs – they who had refused to rule out the possibility of crossing the floor to deliver marriage equality – had weakly backed down, saying now that they will not in fact cross the floor. But my feeling is they still deserve significant credit. First, they pushed an issue unpopular within their party. Second, with their threats they achieved a result. The likelihood is that a yes vote in a postal plebiscite will ensure marriage equality is law within four months. It is sadly true that a hurtful and morally repugnant plebiscite will have to occur first. And it is possible that the plebiscite will fail. But the fact remains that those MPs wanted a legislative result, and they are likely to get one.
If we are willing to credit those MPs at all, should we be willing to credit Turnbull, too? After all, if all this comes to pass, he will be the prime minister under whom marriage equality becomes reality.
There are, I think, two answers to that question.
The first is that those MPs led this debate. Where has Turnbull’s leadership been? In fact, speaking to cabinet yesterday, he went so far as to rebuke [$] any ministers who had encouraged the rebel MPs. At what stage, on this issue about which he professes to care, has Turnbull led the fight?
The second response – and I am bending over backwards here to give the prime minister a chance to redeem himself – is that Turnbull has months now to demonstrate as much leadership as he can on the plebiscites themselves.
Asked today whether he would personally campaign for marriage equality, Turnbull said, “I have many other calls on my time as prime minister but I will certainly support a yes vote, as I’ve said I would in the past.”
Well, sure. But nobody was asking him to take the top job at Australians for Marriage Equality. They were just asking if he’d campaign for change. Unfortunately, he’s busy.
I understand that Turnbull is sending the message to the majority of voters that he, like them, has other priorities. But remember that this issue will now arise again and again in coming months. Turnbull will have numerous chances to put the case for equality as strongly as possible, with the eloquence for which he is famed. First, we will get the Senate vote. Then we’ll have campaigning around the postal plebiscite, with letters sent out in mid September, and due on 15 November [$]. Then, perhaps, we’ll get a parliamentary vote.
Will his answers, in all those months, be as weak as today’s?
This, by the way, was Turnbull on Saturday. Shutting down questions on marriage, he asked journalists, “Please focus on the economy for a while.”
Saturday, 25 June 2016, that is.
Thirteen months later, he’s still (quite literally, as in WA last week) begging journalists to ask him about something else. And now he’s got himself at least another four months of it.
There was one problem with Turnbull’s answer on leadership. When you have to tell voters to think of you a certain way, it’s usually because they don’t see you that way at all. When Richard Nixon had to tell the nation he wasn’t a crook, it was a sure sign he was, and that Americans knew it. “I’m a strong leader,” Malcolm Turnbull said today. If that were true, it wouldn’t have to be said.
In other news
- Same-sex marriage: A flow chart of options. Rodney Croome has a great story about a bus. Mark Kenny is spot on about Turnbull’s weakness. Some postal plebiscite polling. Peter Martin on the ABS being a terrible choice.
- Noel Pearson has some sharp words for Graham Richardson [$]. Helen Davidson on the Garma Festival.
- Polling: Dennis Shanahan on Turnbull’s dismal Newspoll run [$]. Peter Hartcher on the protest vote. More details here.
- A good explanation of the Commonwealth Bank’s woes.
- Malcolm Roberts is in real trouble [$].
- Liberal wars [$] in Victoria. Troy Bramston says Labor is gearing up for a fight on industrial relations [$].
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